Robots in Discover Magazine May Issue

The May 2010 issue of Discover Magazine features CRASAR director Robin Murphy as one of four roboticists interviewed in “Machine Dreams.” Online interviews appear as part of the DISCOVER/NSF Grand Challenges in Science: Robotics event.

Qinghai Quake and robots

What is it with disasters? They’re coming fast and furious. Here’s the 411 on robots at the China quake.

The Qinghai quake is the latest of the series of tragedies. Prof. Bin Li at the Shenyang Institute of Automation and an active member of the IEEE Technical Committee on Safety Security Rescue Robots, contacted the Chinese national earthquake response service this morning. It doesn’t look like ground robots are appropriate– the structures are mostly small and constructed from brick and mud. That type of construction is problematic– the brick and mud turns to a liquidized dust, acting like water to fill all the voids and displaces air. Even if there are voids, the suspended dust causes respiratory distress. Eric Rasmussen InSTEDD has many tales to tell of the similar Turkey earthquake.

China, by the way, does have at least one rescue robot. Bin tells me it was deployed to the mine collapse but could not be used because it wasn’t waterproof. (A gentle aside to manufacturers: d’uh!)

Aerial vehicles might be helpful for tactical operations and I can’t help thinking that an unmanned marine vehicle with an acoustic camera capable of penetrating turbid waters could provide more information about that crack in the big dam…

Bin was a participant in the NSF-JST-NIST workshop at Disaster City at the first of the month and we look forward to working with him and his group. In the meantime.. I’m speaking tomorrow at AUVSI day at the Capitol– I hope that in the future we can do more than offer our prayers.


China and West Virginia: Mobile Robots for Mine Rescue

Just as I was sitting down to blog (with relief) about the rescue of the Chinese miners, the explosion in West Virginia hit the news. Terrible, terrible. Our prayers go out to the miners and families.

Rescue robots have been used in mine disasters in the past and perhaps they will be of service in Raleigh, WV.

Some background on mine rescue robots. From 2007-2008, I led a study for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) on underground mine rescue robots, getting to work with Dr. Jeff Kravitz and his team, attending a rescue competition at the MSHA academy in West Virginia, plus participated in two different mine disasters: Midas Gold Mine and Crandall Canyon Utah. A summary of the study was published in IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine.

Jeff had been exploring rescue robots from mine disasters since before 9/11(!) and has pioneered their use- MSHA is second only to CRASAR in the number of deployments to actual incidents.

Coal mine disasters are tricky for robots- in part because methane is often present. As in “hmm… which would be worse- the explosion or the huge amounts of coal catching fire?” I know of only 1 robot rated to work in those conditions and not trigger an explosion- MSHA’s modified Remotec Wolverine, called V2. Making it intrinsically safe made it much bigger and much heavier, which are not necessarily pluses for agility. MSHA has an iRobot Packbot and is upgrading it, while NIOSH has a set of Gemini robots developed by Sandia Labs. The smaller robots we used at Midas and Crandall Canyon didn’t have to be intrinsically safe because one was a gold mine and the air quality testing at the coal mine showed there was no significant presence of methane- mine environments in the Rockies are different from mine environments in the East.

Mine disasters are also tricky because there are at least three different scenarios for using a robot- and each scenario favors a different type of robot. One size does not fit all. I’ll try to upload some slides to go through the unique challenges posed by each scenario.